Each year, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association invites the president of the United States to the Mount Vernon Estate to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Each year, the president has sent a representative, according Mount Vernon spokesman Emily Dibella. Recently it has been an Army Major General.
But this year, the president did not send his regrets. On Monday, President George W. Bush made his first visit to Mount Vernon since taking office. He and his wife Laura presented a wreath at Washington’s tomb, in a hedged area behind the mansion’s stables and fields. Then the Bushes were formally presented to a crowd of several hundred people, many of them children. They appeared dramatically from the front door of Mount Vernon, accompanied by the estate’s George Washington re-enactor Dean Malissa, and walking half-way around the circular drive to a raised podium where Bush addressed a crowd that had braved icy ground and nippy morning weather.
Bush reminisced about his first visit to the estate as “a little fellow from Midland, Texas” accompanied by his grandmother, and a second trip with his own twin daughters. He went on to compare the Revolutionary War fought by the nation’s “first George W” with the current war in Iraq. In hindsight, he said, it may seem that America’s victory was “fore-ordained.” But in the midst of the war, success was easy to doubt. “America’s march to freedom was long and it was hard and the outcome was really never certain,” he said, contrasting the ragged army fighting in their homes against the invading forces of one of the most powerful nations on earth.
But the rebels’ faith in Washington’s visionary leadership created a free nation, Bush said. “In the end, George Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable.”
Bush reminded the audience that in the years after Washington accomplished his mission as General of the Continental Army and resigned his commission, the country was beset by border disputes between states, “uprisings and revolts.” The nascent federal government, acting under an agreement called the Articles of Confederation, was powerless to control the country’s disparate factions.
In the midst of these threats to the integrity of the newly freed country, George Washington was a unifying force, called first to preside over the Constitutional Convention and then to become the nation’s first president. He used his position to construct the architecture of government – appointing the first cabinet and the first Supreme Court – and literally construct a new capitol city, named in his honor.
“TODAY,” Bush said, “we are fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life. And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone. He once wrote, ‘My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.’”
At the close of Bush’s speech, prerecorded fife and drum music burst from the speakers (it was too cold for the Fife and Drum Corps to play) and a train of black SUVs pulled up behind the stage. Bush spent several minutes shaking hands with the crowd before being shuttled several hundred yards to one of the three military helicopters that had landed on “Bowling Green,” the lawn in front of the mansion.
The president’s attendance created logistical challenges for Mount Vernon’s president’s day celebration. No visitors, and only White House press pool photographers, were allowed to accompany the Bushes to the wreath-laying at the tomb, the ceremony at the heart of a holiday observance that draws hundreds of viewers each year. Dibella explained that the Secret Service denied permission for a public wreath-laying because of the cramped area around the tomb.
After the president’s helicopter lifted off, staff opened up fences that had been erected to confine the hundreds of people who had taken advantage of free admission to Mount Vernon. After being freed to roam the estate, a line hundreds of yards long quickly formed for tours of the mansion.
Joe Dulcey of Waldorf said he has come to the estate frequently, and had wondered how they would manage security in such an open area. “They just closed it all.” He said he appreciated the respectful crowd, and did not mind the security measures.
Robert Daily of Swan Point, MD, agreed that security was “more low key” than he had expected. He said the president’s speech “seemed to parallel the war – the Revolutionary War and today and the need to stay the course I suppose.”
“I think people forget,” said Daily’s wife Diane. “They don’t realize how long it took. All they see is the end result.”
Their son Robert Jr., 14, said the president’s speech made him consider for the first time what it would be like to be alive during the Revolutionary War. “You got soldiers marching through the snow in rags and you’ve always got to wonder if they succeed or if they fail.”
“They’re going on faith,” said his mother.
“Faith alone,” his father agreed.
“And belief in their commander,” Diane Daily added.